In keeping with the 2016 tradition of comic book superheroes turning on each other, this X-Men escapade sees various mutants facing off in a battle to determine the fate of the planet (of course). The problem is that because this story is set in the 1980’s – between X-Men First Class (the fourth movie in the series but the first chronologically) and the first three films in the franchise – there are few surprises to be found in how the story unfolds with regard to the fate of the planet and the various combatants. Even with Bryan Singer in the director’s chair once again, X-Men Apocalypse offers nothing to the wider conversation about xenophobia, mutants as a minority and the politics of fear that has made the X-Men movies, for the most part, a cut above other comic book adaptations. Instead, Singer (who helmed X-Men, X2 and Days of Future Past) has opted for a more insular story in which the conflict is derived purely from the pursuit of power within the mutant world, rather than between mutants and the human population. Sure, mutants have been at loggerheads before, but there has always been an overarching narrative of tension, distrust and hostility between humans and mutants.
After a pre-titles sequence set in ancient Egypt in which Apocalypse – the first and most powerful mutant – is entombed beneath the rubble of a pyramid destroyed by those who, even at this point in history, wanted to see mutants eradicated, the story kicks into gear when Apocalypse (Oscar Isaac) awakens thousands of years later in 1983. Having amassed the powers of many other mutants, Apocalypse is seemingly invincible and, disillusioned by the state of the planet, he sets out to create a new world order over which he will reign. Supported by a gang of four comprising Storm (Alexandra Shipp), Angel (Ben Hardy), Psylocke (Olivia Munn) and Magneto (Michael Fassbender), Apocalypse seeks out Professor Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) to serve as the conduit through which he will deliver his doomsday agenda. Xavier gathers a group of allies – Beast (Nicholas Hoult), Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence), Jean Grey (Sophie Turner), Quicksilver (Evan Peters), Cyclops (Tye Sheridan), Nightcrawler (Kodi Smit-McPhee) and CIA operative Moira McTaggart (Rose Byrne) to bring down Apocalypse and save the planet.
There are a few rapid-fire scenes to introduce the new faces and get you caught up on the returning characters, and a couple of these featuring the cocky Quicksilver are, even in slow motion, perhaps the best action scenes in the film. They are certainly the funniest bits in a film that seems to be skewered towards an older audience, perhaps hoping to satisfy those who have followed the series from the beginning rather than focussing so much on satiating a younger demographic. Whilst all of the characters are earlier incarnations of those who featured in the first few films, there has been 10 years pass since the events of X-Men: Days of Future Past and yet some characters (such as Magneto) have not aged at all, even though we know they are not immune to aging, unlike Wolverine (Hugh Jackman), who appears briefly in a wordless cameo, slicing up a few people before disappearing into the wilderness.
Singer has been responsible for the best three X-Men movies, which makes it a surprise that X-Men Apocalypse flounders somewhat for much of its running time. The intra-species conflict is nowhere near as interesting as the allegorical nature of previous stories and the action is largely reserved for the final sequence when the various mutants unleash the full brunt of their powers on Apocalypse and/or each other. It does offer some insight into the back stories of some characters which help us understand their subsequent actions and the quality cast (which includes Breakfast Club member Ally Sheedy as – somewhat ironically perhaps – a school teacher) do the best they can with the material, but in the end it is the production designers, visual effects artists and editors who are the real standouts.